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Unreliable boyfriends and other dreadful political metaphors

Does Ed Miliband really have a mummy problem?

The Bank of England has been accused of acting like an “unreliable boyfriend” over its position on interest rate rises.

As MPs took evidence yesterday on the Bank’s May 2014 inflation report, Labour MP Pat McFadden said that businesses and consumers had been “left not really knowing where they stand” due to the Bank’s failure to be clear over when it will raise interest rates, and that the bank was sending “a lot of different signals.”

This is a serious issue, but why did Mr McFadden feel the need to employ such a dreadful metaphor?

Metaphors can be very effective when used properly, and yet they rarely are. Politics is especially rife with weak metaphors and irritating similes. I list here some of the most common:

You have a ‘mummy problem’

Ed Miliband has a ‘mummy problem’, meaning he scores well with the pubic on warmth and cuddliness but badly on power. Conversely, the Tories have a ‘daddy problem’. For all their toughness they risk coming across as downright nasty. Pappa Cameron is seen as firm, but people worry his government is too mean to the poor. People still view the Conservatives as ‘the nasty party’ – a habitual problem facing right-wing parties, who tend to prioritise being tough about things ahead of being correct about them.

What mummy and daddy really need to do is get together - i.e. a candidate needs to display both compassion and strong leadership. Alternatively, commentators need to stop using this creepy metaphor. You don’t have a ‘daddy problem’; you’re just not a very nice person. You don’t have a ‘mommy problem’, you just aren’t leadership material.

Public debt is ‘like a household credit card bill’

Proponents of austerity have used this argument a great deal in recent years. In comparing public debt to a swollen household credit card bill, the intention has been tried to frighten people into believing that if Britain keeps on spending it will be overwhelmed with a tide of interest payments and will as a result go bankrupt.

Not only is this an annoying metaphor, but it’s also a spurious comparison. Unlike an irresponsible person racking up debt on a credit card, government borrowing can have a positive effect on growth which in turn can reduce public debt. When the government borrows money it invests in projects which stimulate the economy. Conversely, blowing huge sums of money on a credit card knowing that you won’t be able to pay the interest back has no upside, apart from the temporary buzz you get from wearing the latest fashionable clothes. So no, public debt is nothing like a household credit card bill.


The word escalate is derived from a word meaning a ladder outside of a house, yet it is most commonly used in reference to war. An armed man shoots a combatant in the back of the head and he has simply ‘escalated’. A nation’s army pulls out of some disputed territory and all they have done is ‘de-escalated’. Conflict brings out the worst in language, with politicians endlessly sermonising over ‘boots on the ground’, ‘blood and treasure’ and ‘collateral damage’.

When a politician says a situation has ‘escalated’, what they are actually trying to tell you is that someone somewhere has issued an order for a human being to be murdered.

Anything to do with sport

As we get closer to the General Election it won’t be plain sailing for the Prime Minister and his backbenchers. Indeed, keeping his increasingly restless MPs quiet will be a whole new ballgame for David Cameron, who in other respects is in pole position to come out on top next May. Putting a ballpark estimate on the number of Tory rebellions isn’t possible of course, but there is a risk that, as we approach the election, Cameron could take his eye off the ball and end up tussling with the very people he needs in his corner the most. 

Whatever you do, don't do this.

And my favourite good bad metaphors

“A sugar-coated Satan sandwich” - Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver's description of a proposed 2011 debt deal.

“And the Tea Party hobbits could return to middle earth having defeated Mordor” - Republic Senator John McCain pretending he’s in the Lord of the Rings.

“A family with the wrong members in control; that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase” - George Orwell in the Lion and the Unicorn.

Calls for a “new captain” were unnecessary because “it wasn't the captain that sank the Titanic - a ship they claimed was unsinkable - it was the iceberg. The best way to avoid disaster is to manage your way around the problem” - John Prescott in 2008 on why Gordon Brown shouldn't resign as Prime Minister.

I would be grateful if you could send me any others that are in common use that I have missed.